Balthasar Hubmaier’s View of Baptism
by Rick Shrader
Baptists often debate about their beginnings. Some believe that there is a trail of Baptist ideas all the way back through history to the New Testament. Others believe that the radical Reformation group known as the Anabaptists is the starting point for specifically Baptist beliefs. The majority view is that Baptists have their origins in the later English Reformation and the debates among the Puritans and Separatists.
I agree with the majority view, yet I still find that the Anabaptists are worth learning from. Many of their viewpoints and theologians I find personally disagreeable (such as Hans Hut, certain apocalyptic theologies, or pacifist viewpoints), but not all. Balthasar Hubmaier (1480/5-1528) is one person that I find interesting, particularly in his ideas on baptism. His most famous work, On the Christian Baptism of Believers (1525), has been described by James Stayer as “the most effective defense of believers’ baptism in the Reformation era”.1 My hope is that a historical survey of Hubmaier and his theological writings on baptism will lead you to appreciate this Reformation thinker and his arguments for believers’ baptism, especially as it mirrors so closely what modern-day Baptists believe.
Early Life and Ministry
Hubmaier came from a peasant farmer’s home, but enjoyed a very good education at the Universities of Freiburg and Ingolstadt under the famous Roman Catholic theologian Johann Eck.2 He earned a doctorate in theology and eventually became preacher at the cathedral in Regensburg (1516), which was home to a major pilgrimage site. Reformation theologians as well as the bankruptcy of his own ministry eventually overcame Hubmaier and he converted. After his conversion, he gave up his position in Regensburg and moved to the town of Waldshut, on the Rhine, in March 1523 where he worked to implement reformation.
Waldshut was in Southern Swabia (Germany), near the Swiss border, and not far from Zurich where Huldrych Zwingli was conducting his Reformation. Considering their proximity, it is not surprising that Hubmaier’s early work at Reformation was quite similar to Zwingli’s. But, not all Reformations were equal nor stayed equal. Zwingli’s Reformation was moving at a different pace than Luther’s and they disagreed over important points of theology. Others within Zwingli’s city, such as Conrad Grebel, wanted the Reformation to move at a faster pace than even Zwingli would allow. It helps to know that Hubmaier initially kept pace with Zwingli, but they eventually divided over baptism.
Based on several personal conversations, Hubmaier at first thought that he had allies in Zwingli, Johannes Oecolampadius, Sebastian Hofmeister and others who would agree that infant baptism was incorrect. On Easter Sunday, 1525, Hubmaier was baptized and then baptized several hundred others in Waldshut. Unfortunately, Hubmaier’s continuing Reformation at Waldshut was not well received by the men he thought would agree to take these next steps. Also, the complicated political situation in Waldshut was crumbling because the Peasant’s War was ending. On December 5 of 1525 Hubmaier ran for his life to Zurich because he was wanted for his part in helping the peasants. Before he did, however, he managed to write his famous work, On the Christian Baptism of Believers.
On the Christian Baptism of Believers
This work was written because he had been accused of trying to start a new sect, he was accused of rejecting legitimate government, and he was accused of saying that nobody sinned after baptism. He rejected all three charges. In fact, he believed the Bible taught believers’ baptism and so he was not sectarian but biblical, he opined for a righteous sword-bearing government, and he freely admitted the reality of sin after baptism.
His argument in favor of believers’ baptism and against infant baptism began by recognizing that there are multiple kinds of baptism in the Bible.3 First, there is “baptism in water” because of repentance as John the Baptist practiced. Second, there is “baptism in water, for or unto change of life” which should lead to a new life in Christ. Third, there is “baptism in the Spirit and fire” which is Spirit baptism that makes one alive and whole again. Fourth, there is “to be reborn out of water and Spirit” which is to help the converted not have fear and dread. Fifth, there is “baptism in water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (99).4
The main reason Hubmaier went through these New Testament uses of baptism was to show “that the word or teaching should precede the outward baptism, along with the determination to change one’s life by the help of God” (101). To prove further his point about the order of these events, Hubmaier surveyed the biblical passages referring to John the Baptist. He concluded that the normal order was for John to preach, people to be baptized for repentance, and then to be pointed further to Christ. The apostles followed a similar idea of preaching first, faith next, and then baptism. The difference with the apostles was that they could point directly to Christ, thus their baptism was not to recognize repentance and then point to Christ but to begin by preaching faith in Christ. Hubmaier then surveyed texts in the New Testament that talk of this baptism in Christ. Again, the normal order was word, then hearing, faith, baptism, and a life of good works. In each case, preaching and change of mind came before baptism.
Of course, the consequence of this order was that infant baptism was wrong because it placed baptism before faith. Hubmaier rejected the idea that infant baptism was an anticipatory “sign” (118-9) of faith, a future Christian life, or somehow in agreement with scripture. He also rejected the notion that it could be acceptable because it is not explicitly forbidden in Scripture. Because he saw believers’ baptism required in the New Testament, it followed that there is no place for baptizing anyone other than believers. He also responded to the question of the long history of infant baptism. He argued “even if it had always been like that, it would still not be right, because a wrong is always wrong” (137). In either case, he believed early church history was largely in agreement with the believers’ baptism position.
Hubmaier saw the order of justification like this: first, Christ begins to teach and the sinner sees his own sinfulness; second, Christ leads to confession of guilt and then gives grace; third, there is a public confession of faith culminating in baptism; fourth, the believer lives a life according to the rule of Christ; fifth, there is a regular remembrance of thankfulness in the Lord’s Supper. What is important to see is that Hubmaier argued according to the biblical order. After making this simple but profound point, Hubmaier anticipated several theological consequences. One was the theological permissiveness of infant baptism, as we have already seen. Another that came out here and in several later works is the relation between the Testaments and particularly the relation of circumcision to baptism. He saw baptism as a New Testament ordinance, like the Lord’s Supper, that was a part of Christ’s work and unconnected to the work of the Old Testament.
Later Ministry and Thought
Hubmaier’s biography continues that when he was found in Zurich he was imprisoned (as a political prisoner). Zwingli granted Hubmaier the opportunity to debate him and his men over infant baptism on December 19. At one point Hubmaier was embarrassed in this debate because he claimed Zwingli had rejected infant baptism. Zwingli had indeed said that infant baptism was not the dominant form in certain times of church history, but he did not conclude that believers’ baptism was to be restored. Hubmaier had to admit he misunderstood Zwingli. Another major disagreement was over covenants. Zwingli saw one eternal covenant in both testaments and so baptism corresponded to circumcision. Hubmaier and Zwingli evidently could not agree on the admissibility of the Old Testament to provide a sign for the New Testament. Hubmaier was forced to recant and he referenced love as the reason. In other words, despite the conviction otherwise and under the guidance of others who felt similarly, he thought he should recant out of the interest to the church’s unity. Famously, on December 29 when he was to give his public recantation in the church, Hubmaier stepped up to recant but then said that he could not go against conscience. Displeased, Zwingli promptly stepped into the other pulpit and ended the show. Hubmaier was put in prison, tortured, and only released after several months and another recantation.
After his release in April 1526, Hubmaier moved to Augsburg in Bavaria and then all the way to Nikolsburg in Moravia. From June 1526 until June or July 1527, he had a second opportunity to implement Reformation. At this time he published further works that he had begun working on when in Waldshut. One was a compilation of views by figures in church history that helped his position, Old and New Teachers on Believers Baptism.5 Another was a liturgical guide for his church, A Form for Water Baptism, as well as dialogues with Zwingli and Oecolampadius.
His views had not changed from his earlier days, he was simply trying to defend and clarify the issues as well as provide the practical service of a liturgy for his church. For example, in his Dialogue with Zwingli’s Baptism Book, Hubmaier rejected a connection of baptism to circumcision: “We know that Christ has newly institute baptism and the Lord’s Supper and abolished ceremonies, figures, and shadows of the Old Testament with his coming, as the epistles to the Colossians and the Hebrews clearly prove, Col. 2:16ff.; Heb. 8:13” (188).
He also reiterated the idea that infants cannot have faith nor have the faith of anyone else credited to them: “Baptism is a public testimony of faith which the baptized one himself makes before the church, not godmothers or godfathers. In that each believing person has three witnesses in heaven: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in whose name and power he inwardly surrenders to God and outwardly has obligated himself to lead a new life according to the Rule of Christ” (226).
One important final example is in his work On Infant Baptism Against Oecolampad where he solidified his assertion for the priority of the New Testament: “Water baptism is a ceremony of the New Testament. Therefore I demand from you a clear word out of the New Testament with which you bring to us this infant baptism” (288). We should notice that Hubmaier did not share the same presuppositions about scripture with Zwingli and Oecolampadius.6 Therefore, not only was Hubmaier’s view of baptism different but this difference began to show in other areas.
Hubmaier’s career as a Reformer was short-lived. From his conversion in 1523, his acceptance of believers’ baptism on Easter 1525, his imprisonment and wandering from December 1525 to June 1526, and then through his final ministry in Nikolsburg ending in mid-1527, Hubmaier was incredibly productive, but nevertheless left an incomplete work. His ministry came to an end with his arrest by the Austrian government in June or July of 1527. Hubmaier was martyred on March 10, 1528 in Vienna.
Several points can be marked from this brief survey. First, faith is personal. This is not a position unique to Hubmaier, but was one of the central ideas of the Reformation. However, Hubmaier and those who held to believers’ baptism saw this personal faith as contrary to infant baptism.
Second, the order of biblical events is important. Hubmaier saw baptism as a command of the New Testament and he saw it consistently presented within a certain order. Whether it was the baptism of John the Baptist or of Jesus and his disciples, Hubmaier made the highly influential point that the Bible consistently gave the order of preaching, faith next, and then baptism.
Third, baptism leads to a life of Christian witness within the local church. Baptism is a public profession not only of one’s faith in Christ, for Hubmaier, but also for one’s continuing life of commitment to Christ and his church. In fact, making the public profession of faith in baptism placed one under the authority and discipline of the church.7
Fourth, the biblical arguments are most important. Hubmaier was not opposed to historical arguments (he appealed to history and tradition), but these all stand in submission to the Bible. Again, this was a common Reformation idea, but it is still an important lesson to learn.
Fifth, the New Testament has priority for the church. While baptism was perhaps the issue that proved historically the most controversial, the debate was waged over several fronts. Baptism is a theologically connected idea that touches multiple loci of theology. Besides those just listed, we could also point to the idea of covenant and the debate over continuity or discontinuity of the Testaments.
Most of these observations bear affinity with modern day Baptists.8 There are, however, differences in areas not mentioned here such as church government and church-state relationships. The continuity of Baptist and earlier Anabaptist ideas has some overlap, though it does not transfer to any kind of genetic connection. What we can conclude is that Hubmaier’s famous work on believers’ baptism did have a long history of influence and should give us food for thought.
Some Concluding Thoughts
Modern day Baptists would do well to remember this source of theology. We should also note the strong contention that this point raised between Hubmaier and Zwingli. Indeed, baptism was and is no small matter. Perhaps some of these ideas and theological connections are new to you or perhaps you were reminded of an important point. Personally, when I read Hubmaier’s work, the idea of a faithful life (or even death) connected to genuine faith and believers’ baptism strikes me, particularly because Hubmaier suffered for holding such a view. We would do well to continually consider not only our views on baptism but also the interconnectedness of our theology. We can be thankful for those who began to think through many of the theological ideas that we still consider important today.
- James Stayer, “Hubmaier, Balthasar” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, ed. by Hans J. Hillerbrand, volume 2 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 261.
- For biographical details, see: Stayer, “Hubmaier, Balthasar”; David C. Steinmetz, Reformers in the Wings: From Geiler von Kayserberg to Theodore Beza, second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 138-45; Torsten Bergsten, Balthasar Hubmaier: Anabaptist Theologian and Martyr, translated by Irwin J. Barnes and William R. Estep, edited by William R. Estep (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1978).
- Hubmaier also spoke about a three-fold baptism (Spirit, water, and blood) corresponding to 1 John 5:7. See, Pipkin and Yoder: 301, 349-350.
- All Hubmaier’s quotes will be in parentheses and are from: Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, translated and edited by H. Wayne Pipkin and John H. Yoder, Classics of the Radical Reformation (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989).
- It should be noted that not all of Hubmaier’s quotations and sources were correct.
- Graeme R. Chatfield, Balthasar Hubmaier and the Clarity of Scripture: A Critical Reformation Issue (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013), 114-31.
- Brian C. Brewer, A Pledge of Love: The Anabaptist Sacramental Theology of Balthasar Hubmaier (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2012), 84-141, esp. 138-41.
- For a helpful overview of Baptist thought, see: Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives: And New Testament Church Order (Schaumburg, IL: Regular Baptist Press, 2012).